South Korea's fans go all-out

LOS ANGELES -- They started gathering not long after midnight, nearly every one of them clad in red, carrying a scarf or a flag or both, some with faces painted red, others with Korean flags printed on their cheeks.

It's the closest thing to a real World Cup atmosphere in Los Angeles. This narrow strip of grass off Wilshire Boulevard, in the courtyard of the Wilshire Park Place building, is party central on the mornings the beloved Taeguk Warriors take the field, a real slice of Seoul in the middle of the largest community of Koreans outside Korea.

Young and old, but mostly young, they gather by the thousands to watch South Korea's soccer games from South Africa, just as they did four years ago and four years before that, when Korea was co-host of the World Cup with archrival Japan.

Supporters of other countries -- the U.S., of course, but also Mexico and England, Germany and Brazil; there are fans here of all 32 competitors -- gather to cheer on their teams, but there's nobody quite like the Koreans.

They packed Staples Center, at 4:30 a.m. PT, for South Korea's opener, and they'll be back on Wilshire on Tuesday, at a much kinder hour -- kickoff is 11:30 a.m. PT -- for the match that will determine if there will be further gatherings, for the round of 16 and perhaps beyond.

"You've got to do what you can do to support your team," says David Kim of La Crescenta, who watched South Korea's first two games, a 2-0 win over Greece and a 4-1 loss to Argentina, on the big screen on Wilshire. "Even if they go through hard times, you've got to be there for them. There's still one more game left. You've got to give them support."

The fan festivals mirror what's happening in South Korea, where hundreds of thousands of fans have gathered in public squares to watch the games the past three World Cups. The tradition caught fire in Germany four years ago, where the atmosphere in the "fan zones" bettered that in the stadiums; big-screen viewings have been organized for this year's championships in communities all over America.

The Staples and Koreatown viewings have been organized by the American arm of SBS, a Korean broadcaster, and Korean-American entertainment company Powerhouse, with support from The Korea Times newspaper, Radio Seoul, Sports Seoul USA and LA 18, an Asian-language television station (KSCI/Channel 18).

There's an innocence to Korean fans' passion, with cheerleaders, drummers and flag-bearers working the crowd through organized chants and applause -- a tidier version of fandom than we typically see in the U.S. that has nearly nothing in common with the sporting cultures (and the violent elements attached to them) in Europe and Latin America.

Not that that makes it any less genuine. The fans sing --- one fight song takes its melody from "Ode to Joy" in Beethoven's ninth symphony; another from the Pet Shop Boys' version of "Go West," a popular soccer anthem in Europe, especially Britain -- and clap and wave their flags and scarves with the fervor of true believers.

"It's out of this world," explains Jooho Kwon, who was born in Seoul but grew up in Yorba Linda. "You'll never find fans like us because we're not only crazy, but we're also humble, and we'll have fun with you. We're not here to create riots or destroy things. That's the beautiful thing about Korea. We have a lot of respect for all the other fans."

The gatherings are an expression of Korean unity, but more than that, some fans say, they help unite a community that is somewhat splintered. The divisions between native Koreans and those born in California, between generations with one foot solidly in the old country and those in varying degrees of assimilation, are broken down, at least for a time, by sitting in a park in red cheering on 11 players who represent much more than they might believe they do.

"We're kind of in the middle," says Sonia Yun, as her friend Jina Park nodded. "We have American culture and Korean culture, but it's kind of divided between people born in America and people born in Korea. We hang out together because we're both 'point-five' generation. We can't hang out with '1.5,' but they get along with second-generation."

A "point-five" was born in Korea but raised in the U.S. Yun, 18, of Beverly Hills, moved to California when she was 10. Park, 18, of "K-Town," arrived in L.A. four years ago.

The gatherings reminded them of what it was like in Korea eight years ago.

"It was crazy -- everything was red," Park says. "And here we can be pretty much what we are in Korea, but here it's more, like, crazy."

"They know," Yun says, "how to express themselves more than in Korea."

The World Cup, she offers, "helps us get together."

Peter Han agrees. He, his wife, Youn, and their chow-chow, Simba, have driven into Koreatown from Chino Hills.

"It's the atmosphere," says Han, who was born in Korea but moved to L.A. 28 years ago, when he was 13. "We're living in another country, but the Korean people are getting together, wearing all ready, trying to help our team."

Says Kim: "It's the whole thing about nationality. I'm an American citizen, but I consider myself Korean because my parents are Korean, my blood is Korean." Being among so many Koreans, he says, bolsters that identity.

North Korea also is in the World Cup -- it has been eliminated following losses to Brazil and Portugal -- and its games also have been shown at smaller Koreatown get-togethers. The South Korean fans would like to see their peninsula's Communist half succeed.

"We don't hate the people, just the politics," Han says. The ultimate goal: unification? "Yeah, yeah. I'd be surprised if that ever happens, but I wish."

There are thousands stretched across the block, from Oxford to Serrano -- it's just east of Western Avenue -- but there is little trouble. Retired Korean marines, in full dress, serve as security, and the LAPD also is on hand. Wilshire is closed for several blocks, and late-arriving fans find a better vantage point on the north side of Wilshire, across the street from the park and the large screen showing an SBS Korean feed of South Korea’s second Group B game versus Argentina on Thursday.

Argentina is the better side, as expected, and a Park Chu Young own goal and a strike from Gonzalo Higuain give the South Americans a two-goal lead. The crowd's optimism rises when an Argentine mistake enables Lee Chung Yong to halve the deficit just before halftime, but the game is one-sided in the second half, with Higuain scoring twice more.

After the fourth goal, many in red begin to walk away.

"It's understandable that the majority of people get disappointed. It's a crushing loss, to be honest," Kim says. "I don't believe the Korea team, that they played to their full potential. It wasn't really a good game to begin with. I'm not mad they lost -- you lose a game, you win a game -- I'm just kind of mad because it wasn't a good game. They didn't play good."

South Korea was much better five days earlier, when about two-thirds of Staples Center was occupied by red-clad Korean fans. Two of the biggest were on the floor, painted red and helping the cheerleaders, drummers and flag-bearers work the crowd into a frenzy.

One of them isn't Korean at all.

"I'm here," says Ryan Ruel, "to celebrate my friend getting U.S. citizenship."

Kwon, Ruel's roommate when they attended USC, is providing a glimpse of a culture Ruel wasn't aware of.

"I wanted to show him the passion we have for football," Kwon says. "There's nothing like 15,000 Korea fans out in Staples Center. No other country does it like us. I wanted him to experience it, and he was cool enough to paint his body with me and be out here."

Says Ruel: "I had no expectations whatsoever coming out here, all I thought was I was going to have a good time. ... I love it. I love the atmosphere. These guys are great fans.

"I've never been one to take a liking to watching sports. I've played all my life, but I've never wanted to watch. But today and for the next month, I'm a football fanatic all the way. I feel like a Korean fan, a real Korean fan."

In L.A., he's hardly alone.

Scott French writes the "Football Futbol Soccer" blog for ESPNLosAngeles.com.